October, Laramie

Laramie

The prairie was parched, glowing golden in the slanted winter light; the sky above was blue and huge. As we hiked, our feet kicked up dust, mixing a dry dirt smell with the juniper and sagebrush. A breeze rippled through low, desiccated plants, and I turned my face to bask in the sun.

Our trail was flat, but the plains we walked through were ringed by mountains. To the east, Pilot Hill sloped gently up into a low row of knobs, while west of us, the peaks of the Medicine Bows and the Snowy Range grew sharp and rocky, crowned by fields of snow.

I was hiking with my friend Bethann and her husband Jerod on newly public land. They’d spent the last few years supporting a community effort to turn it from private ranchland into a connector between other pieces of undeveloped habitat; not long before my visit, it had finally happened.

As we walked, we told stories, laughed. We watched their dog Brio, a perfect echo of the dog I’d lost to old age, trot in circles around us in search of intriguing smells. It was October and after a dusting of snow the day before, the morning had been frosty. But now, hours later, it had grown so warm that Bethann and I peeled off layer after layer until we were hiking in tank tops. Our shadows stretched long before us in the late afternoon light, making us giants in the land.

***

I’d come to Laramie because I had just published a book about being queer in the face of the climate crisis, and the mix of grief and resilience and joy it inspires, and Bethann had invited me to give a book talk at the university. I had hesitated at first—what queer person hears Laramie and doesn’t flinch—but I hadn’t seen her in years, and now here was an opportunity.

What’s more, I adore the mountains of the American West. The Rockies are the first place I ever really felt at home in my own skin. I’d backpacked in Wyoming and Montana throughout my teenage summers, fleeing suburbia to scramble across talus fields, to traverse snowfields and cross icy rivers, to camp under unbelievable sprays of stars and cook mediocre pancakes over finicky camping stoves. The mountains calmed my anxious adolescent mind, helped me feel like I could be someone worth being.

So when Bethann said come to Wyoming, of course I would say yes.

***

An hour or so into the hike I paused to catch my breath and to take some photos, letting Bethann and Jerod walk on ahead. I wanted to remember the view, the smells, the sounds, this time of quiet friendship and open space and warmth on my skin. The photos didn’t really capture any of it, of course, but at least they were the evidence of an attempt.

After a brief moment, I trotted to catch up with them. As I reached them, we neared the remnants of an old ranch fence, thin metal posts jutting from the ground, empty space between them where barbed wire once had hung. We continued our earlier conversation, and then—

I debated whether to tell you this at all, said Bethann.

But somewhere out here—this is where Matthew Shepard was murdered.

I want to say that it felt like a shock to the system, a punch to the gut, all the cliches that say your body is surprised by news you never could have expected. But while I hadn’t expected it, exactly—I mean, I couldn’t have said before our hike that we’d be going here—Matthew had been on my mind the whole time I had been in Laramie. He was in the background while I talked to queer students over lunch, while I gave readings from my book to people who could be targets just like him. He had been there as soon as I’d known I’d be visiting Laramie.

Still, it hurt. And by the time I could ask if I could have a minute by myself, tears were rolling down my face.

***

Just a few hours earlier I had given a talk about grief. I’d told a group of scientists how as a science communicator, I’d been encouraged to focus on facts, not on how they made me feel. But I write about climate change, and the feelings that arise aren’t small; the climate crisis is huge and scary and often impossible feeling. So I told them about the shadow I’d so often borne while writing about how the world is rupturing, and the ache I’ve so often felt for my queer community in the face of the AIDS crisis and queer bashings and anti-trans legislation and, and, and. And I told them how that grief was integral to the work I do, not just a side effect that I have to try to bury.

I also shared the joy I feel—the joy of making queer family, of seeing beauty in the landscape, of learning strength. I think that the grief is necessary for the joy. I have to open myself up to all of the complexities of queerness and my community’s history, to not dull or swallow the hard feelings. The grief makes way for something more.

In talking to those scientists, though, I had some distance from my subject. I didn’t stand at the lectern and cry or shake or even feel the heavy, flat weight of emotion. I was just talking about it, about things I had experienced and felt long ago. If I felt the gut-punch of grief as I read to them from my book it was distant, ghostly. Real, but also not.

***

We weren’t hiking along the exact same fence, at least I don’t think so. Ours was metal, unlike the old wooden one he’d been so cruelly tied to—though it’s possible it replaced the original. There was no way for us to know. His family didn’t want the place marked, didn’t want a memorial at the fence for fear of further violence and vandalism. But it was there, somewhere, nearby, haunting.

I stood there alone for long minutes, breathing and crying and aching. Grieving. It was so damned beautiful, the sky that luminous blue against the russet earth. It smelled pure and perfect like the best kind of dust. In the sunlight, everything glowed.

I wanted to speak to him, to hug him, to tell him what had happened in the world for queer folks in the long years since he had died. Instead, I took a photograph, and I plucked out two hairs from my head, and left them there by the fence. A token. A gift. An apology.

***

It was a gift of sorts, to let me have an hour of hiking with just the beauty of the land. And it was a gift to tell me what had happened, to not flinch away from it. That Matthew Shepard had been murdered here. The grief and the joy, together.

***

Bethann and Jerod were waiting for me in the shade of a draw, a dry dip in the earth where water would flow once more in the spring floods. As I neared them Brio bounded out from the trees, thrilled to see me, sent by Jerod to guide me back to solace.

***

I don’t know when I first learned his name. I was nine years old when Matthew was tied to that fence on the outskirts of Laramie and tortured and left to die. I can’t imagine I would have heard about it then. It’s not the kind of thing you tell a nine year old living half a country away.

But at some point I knew, the way you know water is wet, the way you know a hot stove will burn you.

***

Matthew Shepard was attacked on the night of October 6. He was pistol whipped, tied to a wooden buck fence, set on fire, and left to die. He remained there for eighteen hours, until the following evening, when a mountain biker just happened to pass by and see him and call for help.

Eighteen hours tied to a fence, miles from town, with no hope of rescue. Eighteen hours of pain and fear.

Maybe he felt that same warm October sunlight on his skin, smelled the sagebrush and juniper. Maybe it gave him some solace, helped cut through the despair. I want to hope it did, to think the beauty of the place meant something to him. But I also know I’m trying to console myself—to find beauty in the face of so much pain. To flinch away.

***

The fence we walked along was just posts. Someone—the county, or a hiker or a mountain biker—pulled the barbed wire off the fence line, coiled it, and left it there. Bethann and Jerod carried it the rest of the way out.

Bethann told me later that when the fence was whole and intact, she’d find tufts of hair and clots of blood clinging to the barbs. Remnants of pronghorn who left pieces of themselves behind when they sought a way through the barrier. I imagine their tracks in the snow, dotted with blood, the only evidence that they endured.

Now, no barbed wire blocks their path. But the fence posts remain, sunk into the land and anchored with concrete. Metal rods placed evenly along the prairie.

And as they stretched their whiteness to the sky, I followed their line like a ghost.

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